“IT’S TOO QUIET.” A tingling sensation ran up and down Kit’s spine as she and Cullen approached the wagon train camped at the Dry Sandy Ford. Campfires and strong coffee infused twilight with familiar smells, but the absence of Mr. Cameron’s fiddle sent a hot spasm to the back of her throat and visions of murdered people to the forefront of her mind.
Those damn killers could be anywhere at any time.
Cullen shifted in his saddle and eased his hand closer to his hip, to his gun. His eyes swept the camp right to left, then slowly back again. “Mr. Cameron’s fingers must be sore tonight.”
She pulled her gun from her saddlebag and tucked it between the folds of her bunched-up skirt. Her trouser-covered legs twitched slightly from the long horseback ride. “I hope he’s not sick.”
They fell silent as they drew near Kit’s wagon on the north side of the circle.
Adam spotted them and sprang to his feet, holding a book with a two-fisted grip. “Glad you’re back.” A sigh of relief relaxed his shoulders.
Cullen dismounted and stretched his long frame. “Anything we should know?”
“Quiet as a hog’s tit.” Adam tucked the book under one arm and held Stormy’s bridle while Kit dismounted. The pistol went back into her saddlebag.
“Where’s Mr. Cameron?”
“Said he was taking the night off. I suspect his fingers are tired. He kept playing long after you rode off yesterday.”
“Bless his fiddle-fingered-heart,” Kit said.
“I’ll tend to the horses. Pa wanted to know as soon as you got back, Mr. Montgomery.”
“I’d best head over there.” Cullen whispered into Kit’s ear, “Thank you, Mrs. Montgomery for a night I’ll long remember.” He put his hands to her cheeks, eased her head back, and kissed her soundly.
She smiled a bittersweet smile. Now that they were back in camp, she had to share her husband with everyone else. “I’ll go with you.”
A few minutes later, they walked into the Barretts’ camp.
“About time you two showed up,” John said
Henry chuckled. “I thought we’d have to send out a search party.”
“Looks to me like you were relaxing, not rounding up volunteers.”
Braham handed Cullen a cigar. “How was the hot spring?”
He winked at Kit. “Well worth the ride.”
He waved his double entendre like a red flag in front of a bull. Her face heated. Thankfully, Frances, with her impeccable timing, plowed into Kit’s legs, nearly bowling her over.
“You’re back. We thought Mr. Montgomery would keep you forever.”
“We’ll have school tomorrow. Are your lessons done?”
“Mama helped us.”
“Frances, run along. Mrs. Montgomery is tired,” Sarah said.
Frances whispered in Kit’s ear loud enough for everyone to hear. “Did you get a baby while you were gone?”
“There’s no baby, Frances. It’s time for bed.” Sarah said.
Frances bobbed her mane of leonine curls. “Maybe next time you go away you’ll get a boy.”
Kit vacillated between bursting out laughing or throwing cold water on her heated face. The child defined precociousness.
“Frances.” Sarah’s tone was uncharacteristically sharp.
The little girl skipped away unfazed by her mother’s censure. Sarah seemed either worried or ill. Kit poured a cup of coffee and hugged her friend.
Sarah eased back in her chair at the table, her eyes unreadable in the firelight. “The girl’s too sassy.”
Kit settled into a chair next to Sarah and patted her hand. “I think she’s tired of being the youngest, but I’m not ready to be a mother.”
Sarah traced the grooves in the wood tabletop with a chipped fingernail, following its deep lines as they splintered off into different directions. “Life has a way of tempting us with the easier path when the harder one is often more rewarding.”
Kit shook her head. Another pithy Sarahism. “You don’t feel well, do you?”
Sarah stood, rubbing her chest. “Supper didn’t sit right. I’m turning in. I’ll be better by morning.”
A flurry of goose bumps flew up Kit’s arms. “Send John if you need me during the night.”
“I’ll see you in the morning.” Sarah waddled away, her hand pressed against her lower back. Abrupt, short tempered, shallow breathing, flushed face. Kit’s paramedic antenna inched out of her scalp.
The men were huddled over a map spread out on the table. John pointed his pipe at Cullen. “Folks are talking about the Sublette Cut-off to the Green River.”
Cullen removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He’d had very little sleep in the past two days. “I took the cut-off last time out. Four days of dry camp. Hell on the people. Worse on the animals. Can’t recommend the route. The trail through Fort Bridger adds three days, but at least you’ve got water and grass.”
John tapped his pipe against his bottom teeth. “It takes us in the wrong direction.”
“Temporarily,” Henry said.
“You’ll get opposition, but if that’s what you recommend, I’m with you.” John paused then turned to Braham. “What about you? You still leaving?”
Braham puffed on his cigar. “When we reach the Hudspeth Cut-Off.”
“Hate to lose you. You’re the best hunter we got,” Henry said.
“If I didn’t have a job waiting, I’d be tempted to head to Oregon.”
“And you, Cullen?”
He tugged on his lips. “Like Braham, I have a job waiting in San Francisco.”
“Surely lawyers are needed in the Willamette Valley same as California,” John said. “Why don’t you both open an office there?”
Cullen slapped Braham’s shoulder. “I believe he’ll find more opportunities in San—”
“Where’s Sarah?” John asked, narrowing his eyes.
“She went to bed. Said she didn’t feel well,” Kit said.
He pushed away from the table. “Did she say what was wrong?”
“I need to go to her.” In the ten weeks they’d been traveling together, Kit had never seen intense-methodical-John rush off to do anything.
“She was quiet at dinner. Didn’t eat much,” Braham said.
“Then that’s not why she’s sick.” Kit mulled over possible illnesses.
Henry tapped the burnt tobacco from his pipe bowl. “Is she breeding?”
Kit shook her head slowly. “Surely not.” With a husband, five children, and more than nine-hundred miles to travel before they’d reach Oregon, she hoped Sarah wasn’t pregnant. Although from comments she’d made, Kit was certain her friend wanted another baby.
John stuck his head through the tent flaps. “Kit, Sarah’s asking for you.”
Kit’s mouth went dry as she hurried over to the Barretts’ tent. Inside she found Sarah on her cot, curled in the fetal position. Her deep low moans sounded like a woman in labor. “Sarah, are you pregnant?”
Sweat trickled down John’s face. “Baby’s due in October. She didn’t want anyone to know.”
Kit did a quick calculation. The baby was only about twenty-four weeks. There was no chance of survival. She squatted next to Sarah’s cot, dabbed at the perspiration on her face. “I’m going to my wagon for supplies. I’ll be right back.”
Kit motioned to John to meet her outside. Mr. Cameron had finally picked up his fiddle and was playing a piece Kit didn’t recognize, slow and mournful.
John leaned over and kissed his wife. “I’ll return directly.”
Kit and John walked out together. Once out of Sarah’s earshot, she turned to him. “I need a few things from my wagon. Sarah will probably deliver the baby tonight. You understand what that means don’t you?”
He sweated copiously now. A sheen of tears welled in his eyes.
Cullen stepped close, calmly threading his hat’s brim through his fingers. “How can I help, lass?” His voice whispered over her like a cool breeze, bringing his strength and reassurance.
“Sarah’s going to lose the baby,” John said, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Please don’t let anything happen to her. She’s my life.” He buried his face in his hands. Cullen squeezed John’s shoulder in a tender expression of sympathy that reflected in Cullen’s liquid eyes. The shared moment passed quickly. John dried his eyes and went back to his wife.
“I didn’t even know she was pregnant,” Kit said. “If I had known, I would have done more of her work, taken more responsibility. Now she’s losing her baby. I could have made a difference.”
Cullen hooked her elbow and turned her to face him. “Don’t take this on yourself. What you did or didn’t do has no bearing on Sarah’s baby. If anything, you’ve made her trip easier. This is not your fault, and I won’t have you blaming yourself.”
She sighed, her shoulders sagging under the weight of all that had happened during the past three days. “Walk with me to get my red bag.”
“You have medicine that will help, don’t you?” His question came with the expectation she had an unlimited supply of miracle cures. She didn’t. She gave him a sad smile. “I can’t save the baby.”
“Have you ever delivered one?”
“Four. All healthy and full-term. They arrived before the moms could get to the hospital. This will be the first…little one.”
“Should we get Mrs. Cameron to help?”
“It would be best if no one else was in there. Just in case…”
Cullen climbed into their wagon and came back out with the red bag wrapped in a blanket. “Do you need your medical box too?”
“This has everything I need.”
“Could your hospital save Sarah’s baby?” There was a curious emphasis in his question.
She leaned against the wagon and scrubbed her face with her hands. “Are you asking me if I’d consider taking Sarah to my time to save her baby? If you are, the answer is no. There have been incredible medical advances over the past century and a half, but saving a baby that size is rare. Those who survive usually have serious health problems.
His face creased with a mixture of sadness and relief.
“There’s another reason I wouldn’t take her back.” She lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “I don’t think the brooch is a revolving door. I could be wrong. But I believe the stone comes with a purpose. If I’m not pursuing that purpose, it might not work. I don’t know that for sure, but neither do I want to test it.”
He managed a thin-lipped smile. “The time might come, lass, when you’ll need to test its magic. But you’re right. The stone will do what it’s meant to do. No more. No less.” His quiet eyes held some emotion he tightly guarded.
She stood on tiptoes and kissed him. “Thank you for loving me.”
He returned her kiss, pulling her against his body. The muscled planes of his chest were familiar to her now. “Take care of Sarah. I’ll take care of you.”
Kit entered the Barretts’ stuffy tent carrying her paramedic bag rolled up in a wool blanket.
John squeezed his wife’s hand. “I’ll wait outside. But when the time comes, I want to be with you.” He turned to leave.
“John,” Sarah called after him, “don’t tell the girls.”
He shoved both hands through his hair. “They went with Mrs. Cameron. They know you’re feeling poorly. That’s all they’re to know.”
Kit’s throat thickened at the thought of how heartsick Frances would be, but Sarah’s heart must be on the verge of breaking, too. What emotions had Kit’s birth mother experienced when she’d sent her spiraling through the amber light, scared and alone? Twenty-five years later, the sense of aloneness had never left her—until now. Until Cullen pierced the veil.
After John left, Kit said, “Let’s get you into something more comfortable.”
Sarah lifted her arms, and Kit undressed her and slipped on a nightgown. The woman stared with large eyes. “If my baby comes now, he’ll be too little to live.”
Kit swallowed her reply. Being powerless to change the birth’s outcome wasn’t easy to accept. She slipped on a watch, opened a notebook, and started taking notes, concentrating on what she could do, not what she couldn’t. “When did your labor start?”
“Early afternoon. I’d hoped the pains would stop but they kept—” Sarah gasped with a contraction. From that point on, the labor pains continued—longer, stronger, closer together.
An hour later, Cullen stood outside the tent and called softly, “Kit, do you need anything?” His voice seeped into her skin and overlaid a soothing ointment.
“I’ll be right back.” Outside, she took a deep breath of cool, fresh air. The breeze took hold of her hair that had fallen free of her braid and swept the flyaway strands about her face.
He tucked the wild locks behind her ears. “You’re so tired. What can I do?”
She pointed to the center of her shoulder blades. “Rub that spot, please.” His fingers kneaded the tight muscle. She moaned and stretched her neck. “Sweet.”
“How is she?”
“Tired. This will take a few hours. Why don’t you get some rest?”
John walked up with a cup of coffee, which Kit gladly accepted. “Will my Sarah be…” he paused to gather his composure, “safe?” The fear in his voice increased Kit’s apprehension.
“Every birth has risk, John. Has she had any problems before?”
He glanced longingly toward the tent as if his laboring wife was visible through the canvas. “No problems, not with any of them. Always got right back up on her feet. Never a fear of having another. Not like some women I hear tell of.”
“Do you want to sit with her?”
“She’d rather me wait out here.” He looked at his hands. His big, callused fingers seemed to be questioning why they were idle, or why Sarah’s hand wasn’t close by to grasp. He held out a small blanket. “I just got this out of her trunk. It’s for…you know…for later.”
A sharp tug pulled at Kit’s emotions and a band constricted her heart. “I need to go back. The waiting is hard, John. Poke you head inside the tent if you want to check on her.”
Tears rimmed his eyes, but he seemed unashamed of his emotional display. He glanced once more at the tent, then sat in his chair and bowed his head.
Kit rolled her neck. “Much better. Please get some rest.”
“I’ll be here waiting for you.”
Deep shadows lined Sarah’s puffy eyes. Patches of flushed skin dotted her cheeks and pain pulled her lips tight. Ringlets of damp hair lay plastered to her forehead. But even in the darkest of moments, Sarah radiated inner strength.
Another hour passed during which the contractions came every two to three minutes. Finally, she looked up, panting. “I think it’s time.”
“Do you want John with you?”
“If there’s a chance the baby is alive, he needs to be here.”
Kit lifted the tent flaps and found him sitting motionless in his chair staring straight ahead, his face ashen. “Sarah needs you.”
He hurried to reach his wife.
Cullen rose from his rocking chair by the fire. “Is it time?”
“Are you holding up?” He stroked her face and wiped away the perspiration “Can I do anything?” Written in the depths of his blue eyes and in the creases in his face was his love for her. She loved him completely. She also loved the woman suffering inside the tent.
Kit leaned into him and breathed deeply of pine and leather and earth, replenishing her soul with his strength. By replenishing her, she could now give back to the woman who had given her so much.
Well onto midnight, amid deep, muffled groans, Sarah pushed her tiny baby out into the world. Kit cleaned his nose and face. His heart was beating, but it wouldn’t beat for long. She clamped and cut the cord, and then wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed him in Sarah’s arms. “It’s a boy.” Sorrow swelled in Kit’s throat as she gazed into Sarah’s face, the face of a woman filled with unfathomable love and inconsolable grief. Her tears dropped onto the baby’s forehead, sprinkling him with liquid love.
“I think we should name him Gabriel.” A stream of tears slid down John’s cheeks.
Sarah kissed the babe on the top of his head. “Gabriel is a good name.”
Kit left the parents alone to sing their child into heaven. She found Cullen rocking in a chair by the fire, elbows resting on the rocker’s arms, fingers tented beneath his chin, eyes half-lidded. “How are they?”
“Gabriel’s still alive.” She spoke softly, but her voice carried an edge. “I held him…” She glanced at her hands, rubbed one over the other as if trying to wake up his little body and make him breathe. “He’s so small, Cullen. Just barely reached the tip of my fingers.”
“How long will he live?”
“Not much longer.” She remembered Scott’s last few breaths and how inadequate she felt.
“Probably brings up memories of their boy, David. They lost him a few years back,” Cullen said.
“I wondered why they skipped the letter D.”
“What do you mean?”
“Adam, Ben, Clint, Elizabeth, Frances, and now Gabriel. They’re private people. I’m surprised John told you.”
“He needed to talk while you women were going about the birthing. The boy was three. A cold settled in his chest. He died on his birthday.”
Kit dropped to the ground and laid her head on Cullen’s thigh. “Why did this happen? Sarah is such a dear, dear person. It breaks my heart.” Kit was unable to resist the pressure from tears building in her eyes. She cried for baby Gabriel, for Sarah, for Scott, for her parents, and because she damn well just needed to cry.
Cullen caressed her head, running his fingers through her hair. His strong hand had a barely discernible tremble. “Sarah wouldn’t want you to cry on her account.”
“I love her. She’s so much like my mom.”
He handed Kit his handkerchief. “What was her name, lass?”
“Mary Spencer.” The handkerchief smelled of lye-soap, clean and fresh. “Dad met her in Independence.”
Cullen’s hand stilled. “I knew her.”
Kit dabbed at her eyes. “I’m not surprised.”
“She’d planned to travel on this wagon train. Henry has worried over her for months. That’s why he wouldn’t let you go by yourself. He agreed to let your ma sign on then she disappeared. He’ll be glad to know—”
“What? That she’s dead now.”
Cullen shifted in his chair. “I reckon she had a good life with your pa.”
Her mother did have a good life. They all did. Kit felt the stirring of a smile tinged with sadness. “The paths to our ultimate destination intersected long before we met.”
He continued his caresses. “You sound like a Calvinist.”
She laid her head on his thigh. “Are you one?”
“You married a man without knowing his religious convictions?”
“You married a woman without knowing hers.”
“You’ve never appeared to be particularly spiritual.”
She swallowed, unsure of herself. “God and I had a disagreement awhile back.” Her voice was soft now.
His fingers massaged her neck at the base of her skull. “Mayhap it’s time the two of you worked things out.”
“How can I when He takes precious children like Gabriel?”
Cullen’s fingertips worked their way down her neck to the middle of her back kneading tight muscles. “He didn’t take Frances.”
“He took your Kristen.” Her words came out on a long sigh.
“I never turned my back on Him.”
Kit didn’t say anything for several minutes while she reflected on the past few days. “If we get to Oregon without anyone else dying, I’ll think about it.”
SHORTLY BEFORE THE sun rose, Kit and Cullen and John and Sarah found a secluded spot on the Dry Sandy Ford’s sagebrush covered bank. John dug a grave deep enough so the animals wouldn’t dig it up, then he placed Baby Gabriel in the ground while they all sang Amazing Grace. Kit knew no one would ever visit the baby’s gravesite, one of over twenty thousand along the trail. No one would cry over the grave after today. But Gabriel’s short life would be forever marked on his parents’ hearts and on her heart, too. She prayed for the babies yet to be born.
Would one of them be hers?